Climate Resilience In Asian Cities

By Vivekanandhan Sindhamani, Nanco Dolman 24 August, 2021

Nature-Based Solutions can help with Asia's significant climate vulnerability as Sindhamani and Dolman from Royal HaskoningDHV show

When a climate-related disaster strikes, it often manifests itself through water; Asia must change its view on water from just an add-on infrastructure or it will miss opportunities to leapfrog
Merging blue-green infrastructure & nature-based solutions with urban design is in the center of the climate change mitigation-adaptation nexus; solutions are location specific
Rather than ‘adaptive’ cities, we need to start thinking of ‘resilient’ cities not just for people but for economies & for trade as airports - many near the sea in Asia - are exposed
Vivekanandhan Sindhamani
Author: Vivekanandhan Sindhamani
Vivekanandhan Sindhamani holds the position of Sustainable Aviation Lead and Airport Consultant at NACO, a company of Royal HaskoningDHV, with a MSc in Aerospace Engineering from Delft University of Technology (2012). Vivek’s current focus is on spearheading the global aviation sustainability and resilience conversation and delivering tangible solutions to the clients, especially in (airport) resilience in close collaboration with the resilient experts, and using innovative digital solutions. He is a member of various aviation committees such as ACI World Environment Standing Committee, the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) Working group 2; IATA ADRM Think Tank working group.
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Nanco Dolman
Author: Nanco Dolman
Nanco Dolman is leading professional in Water Resilient Cities at Royal HaskoningDHV, with a MSc in Civil Engineering from Delft University of Technology (1998) and a BLA in landscape architecture from Amsterdam Academy of Architecture (2008). From 2011 to 2016 Nanco was part time lecturer Adaptive Urban Development at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences. He served as a Resilient Cities advocate for the UNDRR between 2015 and 2020. And from 2020 he is editor for IWA’s Journal of Water & Climate Change. Bridging the gap between hydrological engineering and ecological design, Nanco is considered as one of the front runners in Water Sensitive Urban Design and Ecosystem-based Adaptation.
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Asia is very vulnerable being home to 99 out of the world’s 100 riskiest cities to environmental & climate-related risks. Moreover, with people and economic activities clustering in megacities, climate resilient solutions are even more essential. To get the “how to” on building climate resilience we sat down with industry experts Vivekanandhan Sindhamani and Nanco Dolman from Royal HaskoningDHV, an international engineering and consultancy firm that focuses on sustainability, resilience and digital transformation. So see our interview below to learn more about how cities can become climate resilient, which are doing worst & best, the role Nature-Based Solutions can play and what all of this means for Asia.   

CWR: Hi Vivek and Nanco, thank you for doing this interview. As experts on water and climate resilience, can you start us off by telling us a bit about what worries you in these areas and how worried should we be in Asia?

Nanco Dolman (ND): Coping with climate change, urban densification and water management are the pressing issues of our time. Asia is one of the most highly populated and fastest-growing economies in the world and exhibits rapid urbanization and industrialization. Over half of its population is settled in urban areas which are concentrated in coastal areas. Seven of the ten most populous cities of the world are in the Asia region.

When a climate-related disaster strikes, it often manifests itself through water…

When a climate-related disaster strikes, it often manifests itself through water. Floods, landslides, tsunamis, storms, heat waves, cold spells, droughts and waterborne disease outbreaks are all becoming more frequent and more intense. The way cities in Asia deal with this is very different. Some cities and countries are considered to be frontrunners, like garden city Singapore, water saving Tokyo and sponge cities in China. While many other Asian cities struggle with political, social and economic issues, the everyday need for water security is more important than water safety.

…developing cities have the potential to leapfrog to greater climate resiliency

Yet, developing cities are at an advantage. Mostly because they lack extensive networks of infrastructure or institutions to rebuild like those in developed cities. Therefore developing cities have the potential to leapfrog towards greater climate resiliency through the provision of multi-functional and multi-purpose water infrastructure. Besides enhancing urban livability, promoting blue-green infrastructure in cities and large scale Nature-Based Solutions can make a crucial contribution to addressing the ecological and climate crisis.

Vivekanandhan Sindhamani (VS): As we reckon, Asia is one of the fastest-growing economies, we strongly see the center of gravity of one of the vital transport sector e.g. airport connectivity slowly shifts from west to east. Most of the airport hubs in Asia are located by the sea or river delta, which threatens global connectivity, trade and commerce. Some of the major airport hubs are started to address challenges in a collaborative way with their national and regional governments.

CWR: Do you think climate adaptation and resilience should be viewed as an opportunity and not just a problem? And can you see many Asian cities taking advantage of this to “build better”?

ND: Climate adaptation and resilience can certainly be considered as an opportunity. Especially in connection with climate change mitigation – the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Merging Blue-Green Infrastructure & Nature-Based Solutions with urban design is in the center of the mitigation-adaptation nexus

Planning for climate resilient cities is not just about protecting our living environment from climatic extremes like flooding. It is also about enabling society to become more sustainable and improve local climate and energy management – something cities are going to have to embrace if they are to survive. Merging Blue-Green Infrastructure and Nature-Based Solutions with urban design is in the center of the climate change mitigation-adaptation nexus, by:

  • helping cities adapt to the impact of climate change by managing flood risk; mitigating the urban heat island effect; and reducing drought risk;
  • helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions through more sustainable usage of water resources and associated energy; and
  • reducing atmospheric carbon through sequestration (carbon offsetting).

In recent years some international development banks like World Bank and Asian Development Bank are promoting Nature-Based Solutions and Water-Sensitive Urban Design in their projects, e.g. the Secondary Green Cities Development Project in Vietnam. Another example is the Water As Leverage program for Resilient Cities in Asia – a collaborating with the cities of Chennai (India), Khulna (Bangladesh) and Semarang (Indonesia) to tackle urban water-related challenges in an innovative and inclusive way.

Asia must change from seeing water as an add-on infrastructure to a multifunctional blue-green infrastructure

Although climate change and the current Covid-19 pandemic highlights the value of green spaces in cities, the move towards blue-green and net zero futures is a transition and needs a step change. In Asia, such a step change will also require a culture change, from seeing water and its supply, transport and drainage as add-on infrastructure, to multifunctional and blue-green infrastructure as an integral part of our living environment.

VS: We follow a trend that the climate change risk is seen as an opportunity within the investment community urging the asset owners to disclose on climate-related risks. The Financial Stability Board created the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) to improve and increase reporting of climate-related financial information.

This urges the vital infrastructure owners and operators to disclose the physical risk and transition risk. As mentioned by Nanco, by managing the physical risk such as flooding, the infrastructure owners are also mitigating the transition risk by improving their sustainability performance. With the improved sustainability performance, the vital infrastructure owner increase their investment attractiveness. One such example is Sydney Airport’s innovative Sustainability Linked Loan (SLL) determines if the company’s bank debt facility margins will decrease or increase depending on their sustainability performance over time and this initiative spurred from the TCFD disclosure. Now, there are a series of Asian Airports following this approach and seeing climate adaptation and resilience as an opportunity.

CWR: With so many capitals and economic hubs in Asia located by the sea, do you think that green infrastructure and Nature-Based Solutions should be used in coastal protection planning? Are there any big difficulties to doing that?

ND: Nature-Based Solutions include constructed and natural areas, like wetlands, green urban spaces, bioswales, mangroves and reforestation. These can be applied in coastal protection, river management as well as in cities. Historically cities have been developed from blue and gray infrastructure and networks. We need to move towards a combination of technological solutions and Nature-Based Solutions.

Nature-Based Solutions can be used for coastal protection…

…we must be willing to bridge the gap between disciplines – engineering, planning, governance and finance

The so-called hybrid approach combines gray and blue-green infrastructure to maximize water absorption and infiltration and limit costs of green infrastructure, while providing potential co-benefits, for example, net zero. This is partly being driven by legislation, and partly by individual awareness of the benefits of sustainable healthy living. For this we must be willing to bridge the gap between disciplines, for example, engineering, planning, governance and finance.

CWR: Are there any Asian cities or regions that you think are most suitable for adopting Nature-Based Solutions to protect coastal areas and any that aren’t suitable? And since we’re based in HK – could Nature-Based Solutions be used to protect Victoria Harbour?

ND: We need to find a type of Nature-Based Solutions that fits the location. The suitability and performance of Nature-Based Solutions is affected by land use/ urban typology, slope of terrain, water dynamics, soil type and climate characteristics.

You find a Nature-Based Solution that fits the location…

For example, the sand motor on the coast in the Netherlands helps the natural replenishment of coastal flood defenses where the morphology of the coast is strongly influenced by sediment transport. In Semarang (Indonesia) the coastline was once protected from the ocean by long stretches of mangroves. Urbanization and aquaculture practices have caused the large-scale destruction of the mangroves in Semarang, resulting in coastal erosion, flooding, and salt-water intrusion. The Water As Leverage program is currently operating to restore the mangrove forests, upgrade informal housing in the coastal area, and stimulate ecotourism. Though some attempts are misguided, many initiatives are successful: once sedimentation is stimulated and seeds of mangrove trees are planted, the rest of the process is self-sufficient.

…for HK, could consider a multifunctional blue-green strategy like on NY Hudson waterfront

While the Hong Kong region is characterized by high-density urban waterfronts – like Victoria Harbour where CWR is based – and prone to typhoons, we have worked on a similar case. As part of the Rebuild by Design challenge in hurricane Sandy affected region of New York we developed a multifunctional blue-green strategy for the Hudson waterfront. A flood defense doesn’t need to be a dyke or levee, it can also be an elevated park.

VS: The Rebuild by Design – includes a design proposition for John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport at the larger Jamaica Bay area. The airport was integrated into a larger tiered defense system. As airport is seen as a vital infrastructure and a catalyst for growth, it helped to raise the fund and supported the transformation of the area, and position Jamaica Bay as a future economic for New York City.

CWR: From our CWR APACCT 20 Index, we found that Asian cities face different level of risks and government actions can significantly reduce the overall risk levels. Which Asian cities do you think are most at risk and which are the safest?

ND: From our observations and experience in international projects, we see that Singapore and Tokyo are seen as example cities. Although the sponge cities in China also gaining more and more interest, it is mainly the cities in river deltas in developing countries.

Singapore & Tokyo lead by example…

…Meanwhile, mega-delta cities in Bangladesh & Vietnam are facing severe challenges

As the transition zones between the land and ocean, river deltas face the brunt of climate change impacts, especially in Asia. Especially in mega-deltas like the Ganges Brahmaputra Delta (Bangladesh) and Mekong River Delta (Vietnam) cities are facing severe challenges such as land subsidence exceeding absolute sea level rise, due to climate change and unsustainable urban development. New governance mechanisms and the knowledge and insights of local communities, civil society and the private sector must be part of the solution.

CWR: We’ve talked about cities but obviously we need to worry about critical infrastructure like airports as well since they are core to the ongoing success of any city and trade. Do you have any examples of airports that are doing a good job in terms of planning for long term chronic climate risks in addition to the short term acute risks? Finally, what do you think is key when cities and corporates start looking at adaptation or resilience planning?

ND: Most airports in Asia have recognized the threat posed by floods and have started work on flood protection efforts. Some airports are seizing the opportunity to implement climate proof airport planning and ‘greening’ airport operations. One of these front-runner airports is Changi (Singapore). The landfills along the coast of Singapore have an elevation close to sea level. Operational continuity of this critical infrastructure is of utmost importance and that is why Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) contracted us to carry out a Climate Change Resilience study for Singapore Airports.

A ‘whole government approach’ is ideal as it results in shared effort towards developing long-term resilience

The combined aviation experience of NACO (Aviation brand of Royal HaskoningDHV) and climate change and water management expertise of Royal HaskoningDHV provided the integrated know-how. The study modelled potential impacts of climate change to see which of the airports’ assets were vulnerable to sea level rise and intense rainfall and what actions were needed to protect them. A whole government approach has resulted in a shared effort towards developing long-term resilience.

VS: Especially, when it comes to airport climate resilience, airports seek the importance on how they fit their wider ecosystem and build relationships with the relevant stakeholders: ministries, government agencies, financial institutions, regulators and third-party airport users.

New digital, data-driven tools e.g. STAIN make it easier to assess the risks & impacts

With our experience, we realized a stakeholder need for a collaborative understanding of the levels of risk, current preparedness and what happens if mitigations fail. If a city experiences a major climate event and loses its airport, how will emergency aid arrive? Interconnecting businesses/ industries, insurance/finance and critical infrastructure owners is the route to preparedness. As these airports have seen, new digital tools such as STAIN are making it much easier to assess the risks, identify the impacts and develop measures. Taking a scientific, data-driven approach avoids all doubt and drives clearer decision-making.

Rather than ‘adaptive’ cities, we need to start thinking of ‘resilient’ cities in Asia

Airports can accelerate making cities resilient because airports could set an exemplary role for cities in addressing water challenges, climate change and urbanization. Rather than adaptive cities, which is a rather passive terminology, we need to start thinking of resilient cities in Asia. It is about lasting and making it through a crisis rather than trying to stop the development that causes the crisis. Besides building resistance against future shocks and stresses, climate resilient cities also have the capability to transform by creating an enabling environment, strengthen stakeholder capacities, and identify and implement catalyzing interventions to transition proactively to a climate-resilient society.

Readings suggested by Vivek and Nanco

Further Reading

  • Bankable Nature Solutions: A Case Study – Is there a way to stop land subsidence, create climate resilience & raise farmers’ incomes? WWF’s Thomas Gomersall & Jean-Marc Champagne say the integrated rice & shrimp model does exactly that
  • 8 Asia Water Risks: Here Today & Here To Stay In Asia – Damaging typhoons, life & business disrupting water outages and threatening sea level rise… China Water Risk review’s 8 water threats too great to miss in Asia from just the past 3 years
  • More From Less: Building Water Resilience – Water and climate are really two sides of the same coin so what are the holistic solutions that can build resilience? Bluetech’s Paul O’Callaghan sat down with Ecolab & Aquatech experts to explore these and more
  • Surviving Rising Seas – 20 APAC Cities: Who’s ahead & Who’s Behind? – The homes of 28mn to 100mn+ residents could be submerged in just 20 APAC cities. Which cities are more prepared? We walk you through the Top 5 Most Proactive & the Bottom 5 Laggards in our CWR APACCT 20 Index
  • Awareness Of Typhoon Risks In Mekong – Vietnam is already vulnerable to typhoons and climate change will increase the number and intensity of typhoons. Yet, awareness and preparedness among locals are inadequate. Dr. Le Tuan Anh & Dr. Hiroshi Tagaki unpack why
  • Chinese Port Organisations on Adaptation – Ports are key economic drivers but are at risk from rising sea levels. Asian ports in ports in particular. Are Chinese ports taking action? CWR’s Dr Chien Tat Low shares key findings from a survey
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